Geolocation Data Tracking, Part 2: More Ways Location Matters

Geolocation targeting
Your location data is being tracked, and it reveals a lot more about than you think. 
We already know that our smartphones, apps and devices are tracking us. Geolocation data is information about an object's location in real time. Devices that can record their geolocation are now a staple in the connected world. Wherever we go, if we take a device that sends geolocation data, we give away our location.
For data brokers and manufacturers, geolocation data is a hot commodity. Vendors use it as a selling feature. With a smartphone or watch that uses geolocation, you can find yourself on a map. If your device becomes lost or stolen, you can trace it back. Companies can use geolocation to track shipments, or for picking up passengers. It can also be of use for less savoury purposes.

More powerful than ever

As data scientists work around the clock, we’re discovering more about what geolocation can really do. New applications are cropping up all the time.
For example, take hyper-location data and geofencing. Hyper-location data is, as the name suggests, is getting more specific with location. Drilling down on the subject's habits to analyze insights by street rather than by city. What can we learn and understand about smaller communities in larger areas? As Adrian Bridgwater from Forbes puts it:
"Every city, every neighbourhood, every location on the planet is unique with its own collection of people, places and events."
Geofencing is defining an area and create invisible boundaries around the real world. When a connected device enters the geofence, the technology is aware they are inside the boundary. This allows organizations to send notices to those who enter the area, or be on alert over who comes or leaves. Take a person who loves shoes coming into the same area as their favourite store. Thanks to a geofence and the person’s phone, the store is ‘aware’ their favourite shopper is in the area. If the customer has accepted communications, they can reach out. An app or text can send a new message alerting to deals, specials, or new products. If the receiver has time, the message might encourage them to go inside.

Not as benign as it seems

It’s easy to see how hyper-location and geofencing can benefit marketing and sales. Problem is, geolocation data and geofencing have other applications, ones far less benign. Worse, reports are in that turning location tracking ‘off’ may not be enough. As an AP exclusive discovered, even when turned off, some apps still automatically time-stamp location. For Google, you'll need to turn off both "Location Data" and “Web and App Activity” for location privacy.
Yet what harm can that geolocation data actually do? A lot, as it turns out. Geolocation data can be a handy tool for darker purposes. It's useful for stalkers, discovering infidelity, police surveillance, and employee monitoring. More uses, good and bad, are being discovered all the time. If you value your privacy, here are three more ways geolocation data can be a problem, and why you should always be able to opt-out.

1. When geolocation data gives away more sensitive data about who you are.

We know geolocation data reveals where you spend your time, but what if where you go makes significant statements about other parts of your life? If you visit a hospital once a week, are you seeking care for a treatment or regularly visiting a friend? Regular trips to your church, mosque or synagog reveal your religious affiliation. A closet member of the LBQT community who meets others in the a community at nightspot can be outed by data. It’s not enough for the data to know what streets you walk and when you opt to head home. With your location data being tracked, and cross-referenced with where you end up, geolocation data now tells us more about an individual than ever.

LPAuditor is one such tool that can cross-reference. The tool uses location metadata that has been available for years on Twitter. Researchers combine GPS data from tweets with selections of other criteria. This includes the time of the tweet's posting, the date, and any other prediction indicators. When they combine GPS twitter data with Foursquare directories, predictions get sensitive. Combining the data and the tool is looking at tweets against known locations, such as places of worship and hospitals. The tool relies on assumptions by the researchers but results are staggeringly accurate. LPAuditor was right 80% of the time. As GPS directories and social media locations are often easy to access, the development of similar tools is likely.

2. Location-based pricing

Notice things cost more when you get to the store than when you looked online? It could be true. Dynamic pricing, where prices change depend on market demand is well-known where the internet is concerned. Many shoppers are aware that airline prices can go up or down depending on the day you start searching, how often you look, and the intended time of flight. But what if the price depends on your distance from the product?

Retail giant Target recently came under fire for this practice. The store charges $499.99 for a Smart TV via app, yet for one family the price jumped to a whopping $599.99 when the buyers arrived at the store's parking lot. The Target app, it seems, is following you wherever you go, and Target was using that information to decide how much you will pay for an item. Writing for Yahoo Finance, Bob Sullivan comments Target is not the only offender. He’s found stark differences in pricing for car rentals when browsing regularly, and when shopping as an anonymous user. Retail chains have caught on that a significant amount of price-shopping now happens online, and are working their sales to use that in mind. If you're shopping for the best bang for your buck, stay anonymous: then the price you see isn't based on your previous habits.

3. Military tracking

Do you work with the armed forces? Better check with your commanding officer before bringing home that new connected device, even if it looks harmless. In 2018, fitness app Strava came under fire by the United States military. The problem? The fitness app, which tracks the routs of regular runners, was also revealing classified information, including the location of secret army bases. Legislation in Russia now bans military units from publishing information online, and includes the disclosure of geolocation data. The result is a crackdown on smart phones and apps, which share information often without awareness. Connected technology may seem like a godsend to those with family members deployed overseas. After all, current technology means instant communications, and welcome messages from loved ones. When that data can be used to pinpoint group locations however, and put lives in danger, military leaders are deciding the risks far outweigh the rewards.


More to come?

As data analytics becomes more dynamic, there's no doubt more applications for geolocation data will crop up in the future. What happens when we combine Artificial Intelligence and geolocation data for example? How long before our devices are recording where we've been and where we will go? What new advantages will geolocation data provide? What new privacy challenges will we need to be aware of?  The sky may be the limit.
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